By Patrick Novecosky
National Catholic Register
June 28, 2009 Issue
Steve McEveety is no stranger to controversy. The veteran producer of films like Bella, Braveheart and We Were Soldiers has worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. But he’s also taken heat for projects like The Passion of the Christ, which some groups charged as being anti-Semitic and too violent for the screen, and An American Carol, which lampooned liberals.
The latest project from McEveety’s Mpower Pictures is more akin to The Passion. Filmed in English and Farsi, The Stoning of Soraya M stars Jim Caviezel and hits the big screen on June 26. Controversial in its own right, it tells the true story of a Muslim woman unfairly accused of adultery in a small Iranian village circa 1986. The film took second runner-up at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, finishing just behind the Oscar-winning megahit Slumdog Millionaire. Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky spoke to McEveety from his office in Santa Monica, Calif.
Your father and uncle were in the movie business, so you literally grew up in a Hollywood family. Was the faith part of your upbringing?
Yes. I was brought up in a Catholic family, and we went to Mass every week. I went to Catholic grammar school and high school, and then to Loyola Marymount, which is a Catholic university. So I think it was drilled into me quite properly. I ignored the Church for a while when I was young, then came back. The faith is bred into you, and that foundation is always there. When it’s time to turn to the spiritual side, you have a direction to go in.
You’ve worked on a number of films with faith themes — Braveheart, Bella, The Passion. What’s your definition of a good film?
The essential aspect of any film being good is that it’s entertaining. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. After that, you can layer it with all sorts of cultural, personal or moral opinions. That’s how films can lead people in all sorts of different directions. They are layered with messages that people don’t realize are there. For me, anything that shines a light on God is the right direction. The more covert that light is, the more effective you might be.
My faith certainly has had an effect on my work. How could it not? And part of it is chance — what doors are opened, and what doors are closed. That’s God’s providence. I’ve been able to work on some great movies and thankfully avoid others. I’ve been blessed.
Did you found Mpower in order to make movies that appeal to a Christian audience?
Not really. My taste in art just does that naturally. I make movies that appeal to me. All of my movies, with the exception of The Passion of the Christ, are not Christian films. The rest of them have Christian values in them — the mention of God or the suggestion that there’s a higher being — because that’s who I am. So I can’t avoid that; it’s going to come out in the films I have control over.
How does the Christian faith fit with your new movie, The Stoning of Soraya M?
A film is made by many filmmakers. I’m one of several on this film. If you’d ask the director or the actors, you’d get a different answer. For me, it’s a biblical film, a New Testament film.
Although it takes place in the Muslim world, it’s a very Christian film. The title gives a bit of the story away. The woman who is stoned to death in the film carries her cross, and she carries it quite well. In the end, she is “crucified.” Her last detectable words are to her God. So, in that regard, it’s very much a Jesus story. It may never dawn on my fellow filmmakers, but that is very evident to me.
Many of the surrounding characters are much like the ones that Christ confronted. There are good people; there are bad people; there are people who denounce this woman and accuse her unfairly. There’s a lot of commonality there. Soraya is really quite Christ-like, and that’s what drew me to this film. But the movie is about much more than that. It’s about a victim and bullies. In the course of our lives, we’ve all been both.
There are some striking similarities to The Passion — the actor (Caviezel), the location in the Middle East, the violence, the score by composer John Debney, the foreign language. Was any of that on purpose?
Not really. I just loved the script and felt like the story must be told. Debney is my buddy. I grew up with him. I brought him onto The Passion. He’s absolutely one of the best composers in the world, and I got him to do this film. It was a blessing.
We hired two high-profile actors for the character Caviezel plays. Both accepted the part, and each one of them decided three days later to drop the part. They were living in Europe, and their families were concerned for the potential danger of playing the role. I was set to go into production in three weeks, and I didn’t have an actor. Caviezel is my buddy, and our kids go to the same school. I ran into him on the day the second star backed out. I explained what happened, and he said, “Let me read it.” So he read it and said, “I’ll do this part.” He turned out to be just perfect for the role.
The director always wanted to do the film in Farsi, the native language, so people would feel like they were really there. And he was absolutely right. You experience this film rather than watch it.
Before The Passion and Slumdog Millionaire, foreign language films didn’t appeal to a mainstream audience in the U.S. Have they opened doors for films like The Stoning?
You’re probably right. Movies are becoming more international. People here in the United States are responding to international-themed films. The Stoning of Soraya M was the second runner-up at the Toronto Film Festival, which I was pretty excited about. It was quite a feat in itself, but I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t win. Some “stupid movie” called Slumdog Millionaire beat us. I didn’t know what that was at the time. Now I’m not feeling so bad since it went on to win Best Picture and seven other Oscars.
Before The Passion, I’m not aware of films in foreign languages made by Hollywood filmmakers. I think it was one of the first. We have a different way of making movies than Europeans do. Films done by Hollywood filmmakers in a native language might be a little more accessible to an American audience.
You’ve screened The Stoning for a number of groups — secular, Christian and Muslim. What has the reaction been like?
It is way above normal in terms of how people rate the film, but the personal reactions have been just incredible. Across the board, people are stunned at the movie. I don’t know how many people have told me it’s the most powerful film they’ve ever seen.
On the flip side, any time you make a statement like this film does, you’re going to get people who disagree or are upset or offended. About 4% or 5% are either angry with us, or the movie made them angry, but there isn’t anyone who isn’t emotionally involved.
Some people can’t handle the stoning scene. They’ll close their eyes or leave, then come back. But even those people thank me for making the movie. No matter what people’s reactions were after seeing this movie, it’s stronger and more positive two days later. It’s a movie that doesn’t leave you. If there are movies you don’t forget in your life, I think this is one of them. Unfortunately, we don’t have the funding to advertise, so we’re relying on word of mouth and reviews. If we do well with both of those, the film will catch on.
What’s down the road for Mpower and Steve McEveety?
We’ve got about 20 films in development right now, including several family films. We just finished filming one called Snowmen (Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd). It’s fun and sweet. My dad worked at Disney, so I grew up around family films. It’s a blast for me.
We’re also doing a movie on spiritual warfare based on [Rwandan genocide survivor] Immaculée Ilibagiza’s best-selling book Left to Tell. We have a screenplay; we’re raising money, and we’re hoping to start shooting soon. We really want to get into her soul and explore what she went through spiritually to get to a point where she could forgive.
Patrick Novecosky writes from Naples, Florida.